The history of “Amaro”
Amaro is a traditional Italian drink. After aperitifs, “bitter” alcoholic beverages is the second most flourishing industry: Italians like to drink amaro after their coffee, at the end of a meal or even during the day, as an invigorating drink with a strong flavor.
But have you ever wondered what an amaro really is? Stay with us to better understand the nature of this local and traditional liquor.
INFUSION IN ALCOHOL
An amaro is… bitter. It may seem trivial, but this is the most important aspect of this drink. Amaro differs from all other alcoholic beverages because it is an infusion of more or less sweetened herbs and spices with a typically bitter taste.
In English, amaro is translated as “bitter”, as it is still called in modern mixology. Bitters are a concentrate of “flavor extracted through alcohol from spices, herbs or fruit” and are used in the creation of contemporary cocktails, which prefer the neutral base of a “white” distillate that can be infused with the right aromas.
But how did we come up with the amaro? To find out, we must take a step back in time.
As we have seen in a previous entry, water purification made the production of alcoholic beverages possible. In ancient times, the discovery of grape and cereal fermentation had an important role in ensuring the “purity” of what was drank. Soon, it was discovered that alcohol not only had sanitizing action but also extractive properties. For example, if spices and herbs were left to infuse in the wine, this could macerate them and, at the same time, be enriched with flavors and aromas.
Read our entry on why alcoholic beverages were born!
When stills were invented, these allowed for a much purer extraction of alcohol: a true revolution in the preparation of medicine. Medieval pharmacists and alchemists used alcohol to extract the essence of the substances that were immersed in it. It was found that alcohol could enhance the effect of healing herbs. Modern pharmacology was thus born and, along with it, the “science of bitters”.
Actually, even well before the Middle Ages, it was possible that the Greeks and Romans already knew the pharmacological properties of amaro obtained through infusion. We can easily quote Lucretius to see how “amaro” was synonymous with “medicine”. In the first book of De Rerum Natura, the Epicurean poet writes:
[…] doctors try to give disgusting absinthe to children by sprinkling the glass rims with sweet and blond honey, so that the inexperienced are deceived by their lips to drink the bitter juice to the bottom. Although it was a deceitful method, children are in no way harmed: rather, they are reinvigorated, and they regain their health.
Historians have found that the « disgusting absinthe» was infused in alcohol or fortified wine. The very word «absinthe», which comes from apsìnthion, means «lacking in sweetness». In ancient Greece it was used to treat digestive problems: Pythagoras prescribed the drink to women in labor during childbirth, while Hippocrates recommended it for jaundice, rheumatism, anemia and menstrual pain.
It is now easy to see how amaro started out as a medicinal beverage. Only later did it become part of the drinking culture, regardless of its beneficial effects. But it can’t be denied that amaro still retains traces of its “medicinal” origin: the herbs chosen for the infusion and the low presence of sugars actually help digestion, and they can also strengthen the spirit by directly transmitting the essential and pharmacological properties of plants (the body absorbs alcohol faster than water).
Now that we have understood the history of amaro, how is it made and how can it be defined? Find out with us in our next entry!